Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Audubon's annual bird count: even in the city, some species show up year after year

Orange-crowned Warbler, courtesy of www.whidbeyaudubon.org

Article by Clay Barbour for the Charlotte Observer
Dec. 28, 2008

Taylor Piephoff and Greg Hayes came to the Renaissance Golf Course Saturday in search of birdies.

Of course, there's nothing unusual about that.

But unlike the others traipsing around the greens in the early morning fog, Piephoff and Hayes were using binoculars instead of 9-irons.

The two men were among a group of 22 area birders helping with the National Audubon Society's 109th annual Christmas Bird Count, a national effort to catalog bird populations among growing metropolitan areas.

More than 120 Carolinas bird groups are taking part in the count this year, which started Dec. 14 and runs through Jan. 5. Results are due by mid-January. The Mecklenburg Audubon has held
an annual count every year since 1941.

The group has traditionally focused on a 15-mile circle, centered at the intersection of Woodlawn Road and South Boulevard.

Sticking to the same area allows for a controlled count that can be used to give researchers a better idea of the health of different species.

“We contribute to a data set that is used nationally and internationally to track birds,” said Ken Kneidel, an experienced birder in charge of Charlotte's count this year. “Without volunteers like we have, I don't know how this kind of research would ever get done.”

Kneidel said the Queen City's bird population has remained fairly steady since the mid 1970s, in part because of the city's protection of its tree canopy.

The chapter recorded 93 different species of birds last year, a little shy of the record of 96 set in 1983.

Birders have noticed trends in recent years. Some species have thrived as the city has grown. Others have diminished.

For example, the chapter counted 21 Canada geese in 1967. Last year, they counted 687.

Meanwhile, it recorded more than 280 purple finches in 1981. Last year, they found one.

Such numbers are rough estimates at best, relying as they do on a one-day count by volunteers. But Kneidel said that observed over time, they give researchers a good idea about population changes.

Piephoff, 48, works for Mecklenburg County's natural resources department and writes a regular column on birds for the Charlotte Observer. He started birding in 1972.

Hayes, 38, works for Bank of America. He has been birding for about 10 years.

Both men say they grew up fascinated with nature – birds in particular.

“It's a fun way to connect with the world around you, the seen and unseen,” Hayes said.

Most birders develop a keen eye for spotting birds from great distances and through thick brush. But sometimes they rely on their trained ears.

With a cold fog hanging low over the course Saturday, visibility into the woods was poor. Piephoff walked to the edge of the trees and let out a bird call that mimics the sound some make when distressed.

“Shhhwt, shhhwt, shhhwt, shhhwt, shhhwt,” his voice echoed off the trees.

A few seconds later, the woods erupted into a chorus of calls, as the birds answered.

Hayes and Piephoff rang off the names of the birds they heard as easily as others list familiar songs on the radio. A mockingbird, a white-throated sparrow, a Carolina wren and a swamp sparrow all called back.

The two men mentally logged the birds and continued on.

“In a lot of ways it is like a sport,” Kneidel said. “Finding a rare bird is like hitting a three-pointer or sinking a putt. It's exciting."

Keywords:: Audubon Christmas bird count annual bird census bird conservation Charlotte Mecklenburg Audubon Clay Barbour Ken Kneidel Taylor Piephoff Greg Hayes Alan Kneidel

Friday, December 26, 2008

Volunteers for Audubon's Christmas Bird Count collect valuable conseravtion data

photo courtesy of www.birders.cornell.edu

This year I inherited the job as “compiler” for the Charlotte Christmas bird count. If you’re unaware, the Audubon Society has sponsored annual bird counts for the past 108 years. In Charlotte, we’ve had a count since 1941. My job is to see that the count runs like it has in previous years, and to collect and submit the data we collect to a national database.

I just got a phone call from a staff writer from the Charlotte Observer putting together a piece for tomorrow’s paper. He asked “why do you do this?” It might seem odd – why would 21 people spend all day trying to count all of the birds in a 15 mile wide circle? When people first hear about the count they often express confusion – how can you possibly count every bird in an area that big? How do you avoid counting the same bird twice? The truth is, we never expect to count every bird. What we try to do is get a representative sample. We know what places to focus on to see the birds we suspect are in the circle that day. We avoid overlap by forming 8 groups, each responsible for different sections of the circle.

But that’s more about “how” than “why”. I’ve got three answers to the latter question. Number one for me is the value of the records. Over 100 counts will be carried out in North Carolina alone; thousands internationally. We birders amass a monstrous invaluable data set. Over 30 acres per day have being developed in Mecklenburg County during the past several years. All this development, plus global climate change, are having a significant impact on wildlife – we know so because data sets like the Christmas bird counts show trends.

Another reason is “sport”. For me, what we do feels like a sport. I’m reluctant to admit it, but for me there’s competition. Not so much with other birders – more with myself. Just like a golfer tries to improve every round, I like to see more birds and better birds each year. I’m reluctant to admit this because the perfect effort in doing the count would be to repeat exactly what you did the previous year so the data will be reliable. It’s important to be able to conclude that if you see more birds one year compared to another it’s because a change in bird abundance and not due to fluctuating effort. But it’s hard not to try to do “better” each year, that is, find more birds and especially more rare ones. Last week, for example, while doing a different count, my group was the first to ever see a Common Raven in Mecklenburg County, NC. For me, spotting that raven was like sinking a 150 yard iron shot from the rough on a windy day. It felt great!

Thinking about the bird count as a sport led me to notice that, from the outside, traditional sports seem a little odd too. Don’t take me wrong – I’m an avid sports fan. But hitting a white ball up and down fields with clubs might seem strange to the uninitiated. Or football – 22 grown men “fighting” to get a leather ball to one end of a large field? Maybe counting birds in a 15 mile diameter circle seems strange to some, only because they’re outside looking in. From the inside, it’s sport-like. Twenty-two people working together to achieve a difficult goal that’s challenging and requires lots of skill. Most of us will identify the majority of our birds by sound, and many not by their songs. Sometimes we’ll rely just on simple “call notes” that differ only in sound quality and pitch (we’ll struggle to decide whether we’re hearing “tseeet” or “seeep”).

Reason number three (and as important as the other two) can also be appreciated by sports fans. I’m sure that many who are obsessed with traditional sports enjoy the camaraderie and the atmosphere while watching the sport as well as the action. We 22 birders are also friends; we often bird together throughout the year, and “tailgate” every month at Audubon meetings. And our “atmosphere” tomorrow will be hard to beat. Birding requires walking slowly through natural areas, looking at and listening to everything. As you do this, you become more aware of the differences between seasons, not only in terms of the birds, but also in the vegetation, weather, and sound. The differences between places also become more obvious – field versus forest margin, thicket, or deep woods. You also see that a place of little apparent value to humans can be priceless to wildlife. For example, I’ll look forward tomorrow at seeing Savannah sparrows at an abandoned development along Shopton Rd. To anyone driving by, that lot is a “wasteland” – a “strip of pavement to nowhere”. To the sparrows it’s perfect habitat for the winter – as is the Hilton Hotel in the center of downtown Charlotte for a Peregrine Falcon! We birders know that a Peregrine has been using that hotel as a winter stopover the past few years. It likes to sit on the ‘i” on the red sign high on the side of the building. The skyscrapers of downtown Charlotte offer equivalent habitat to cliffs and open areas out West, and pigeons are good prey. After I saw that falcon, the city’s never felt the same. There’s indescribable joy in seeing a beautiful animal acting according to its nature, oblivious to human activity surrounding it. I’ll see that over and over again tomorrow in many contexts.

So that’s why. For me, I’m excited because I have a big game tomorrow. The weather will be fresh and crisp, spirits will be high. I hope we score at least “80”. I can’t wait.

Written by Ken Kneidel, PhD
Charlotte Audubon Society

Keywords:: Christmas bird count Charlotte Audubon Society Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology bird conservation North Carolina Bird Count 2008 Ken Kneidel

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The 1000th bird on my life list....at Llanganuco Lodge in Peru

Ken, Sadie, and Alan watch an Andean Flicker near Llanganuco Lodge

Eager to hit a variety of habitats while visiting Peru, my birding family planned a stop at Llanganuco Lodge following advice from friends in Iquitos and Huaraz, Peru. What a great decision! The lodge is located in the Andes, just between the Cordillera Blanca and the Cordillera Negra, at an altitude of almost 12,000 feet. The location offers easy access to just what we were looking for – Polylepis forest, puna grassland, pastureland, sheer cliffs, mountain lakes, and churning streams.

Sadie examines a piece of bark from the unique high-altitude Polylepis trees (pictured)

By happenstance, birding the area around the Llanganuco Lodge coincided with my approach to the 1000th bird on my life list. How lucky I was to be staring up at Mount Huascarán (highest tropical peak in the world) instead of looking out my bedroom window back home in North Carolina at this special moment! It had taken me 42 years to get to this point and I wanted number 1000 to be special. As it turned out, that bird turned out to be one that Charlie Good (the owner of Llanganuco Llodge) told us about just minutes after our arrival, the Giant Hummingbird – the largest hummingbird species in the world – one definitely worth the honor. My son and I were following a rushing stream as we birded up the glacial valley leading toward Mount Huandoy. The hummingbird was so large that it looked like a swift, darting up and down the river, sweeping low to feed on insects near the water’s surface - enthralling acrobatics and behavior that I won’t forget. Number 1001 was noteworthy as well – a White-capped Dipper feeding in and along the stream margin.

We missed an Andean Condor that made an appearance for Charlie while we were there, but other birds of note were Andean Lapwing, Silvery Grebe, Puna Ibis, and Puna Teal on the lake next to the lodge, Andean Goose at Lake Llanganuco and Aplomado Falcon on the trek from Lake Llanganuco back to the lodge. Andean Flickers peppered the pastureland around the lodge, and mixed-species flocks of ground-tyrants provided an identification challenge.

I remember quoting the movie Field of Dreams when talking with Charlie, in reference to both his lodge and the nature that surrounded us – “If you build it, they will come.” Come see what nature’s built around the lodge that Charlie’s built, and you’ll enjoy a wonderful set of birds that come right to your doorstep.

By Ken Kneidel, PhD

Our more detailed post about our trip to the Peruvian Andes and Llanganuco Lodge:

Roasted guinea pig: trekking at 12,000 ft

Additional posts on this blog about our travels in Peru:

Careening through the Andes

Deep in the Amazon: the wildlife delivery crew

Rainforest in need: here's how to help

Keywords:: birding Peru birding Andes Charlie Good Llanganuco Lodge birds of the Andes birds of Peru Lake Llanganuco

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Campus "Meatless Day" raises environmental awareness

Our school is considering a "meatless day" campuswide this spring, to increase awareness of the environmental damage caused by livestock around the globe. The food service that operates our school cafeteria has agreed to facilitate our meatless day. My husband Ken, a biology teacher, has written this summary for students and faculty, to explain the impact of livestock on the world environment:

Eating meat is an inefficient use of our diminishing natural resources: land, water, and clean air. We could feed the human population with much less agricultural land if we ate the grains that we presently feed our livestock. For example, it takes 7 lbs of grain to produce a 1 lb weight gain in a steer. A hog needs more than 3 lbs of grain for a 1 lb weight gain. For poultry and herbivorous species of farmed fish, 2 lbs of feed is needed for a 1 lb weight gain (Brown, 2008). Stated another way, we consume fewer natural resources when we ourselves eat the plant-based foods that we feed livestock, rather than running them through animal bodies first.

A closer look at our soybean harvest, as an example, illuminates how this inefficiency makes switching to a vegetarian lifestyle a wise choice. In 2007, the world grew 222 million tons of soybeans, only 20 million of which was consumed directly as tofu, soy milk, veggie burgers, etc. Thirty-seven million tons were used in making soybean oil; the remaining 165 million tons were fed to cattle, pigs, chicken, and fish (Brown, 2008). Averaging the inefficiencies mentioned in the previous paragraph gives roughly 4 pounds of feed needed to produce 1 pounds of meat, a ratio of four to one. This means that the 165 million tons of soybeans we feed to livestock yields only 41 million tons of meat. If we replace this 41 million tons of meat in our diet with 41 million tons of soybean products (eating them directly rather than feeding them to livestock), that would make the remaining 124 million tons of soybeans we grow unnecessary. The same argument can be made for other crops we feed to livestock as well – most of the corn and oats we grow are fed to livestock rather than eaten directly by humans. As shown below, every acre of land not used for farming in the world would act in many ways to improve the health of our planet.

Right now 70% of the agricultural land on earth (and 30% of the earth’s land surface) is set aside for livestock pastures or growing food for livestock (Steinfeld et al., 2006). Every acre that we free up and return to its natural state would reduce our demand for water, expand forests and other natural habitats, and lower the volume of pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics we release into the environment.

Pasture that was once forest (photo courtesy of www.biology.duke.edu)

Since much of the feed we grow for livestock is irrigated, raising livestock consumes an enormous amount of water. Worldwide, the livestock sector accounts for 8% of water used for human activities. Raising one steer, for example, requires 1.2 million gallons of water, considering the irrigation of the steer’s feedcrops. Producing one pound of ground beef requires 5214 gallons, while one pound of either lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes, or wheat, requires only 23 to 25 gallons (Robbins and Ornish, 2001)

As an example of how the livestock industry impacts habitat destruction and deforestation, consider our loss of tropical rain forests. Thus far, roughly 20% of the Amazon rainforest has been cleared either for cattle ranching or soybean farming (soybeans primarily for livestock feed). Tropical rain forests have been estimated to contain from one-third to one-half of the world’s species. As these forests are cut, our global biodiversity will plummet.

In contrast, livestock are so numerous that they account already for 20% of the total mass of all land animals on earth. They preempt 30% of the earth’s land surface from occupation by wildlife. Besides driving deforestation, the livestock industry is one of the main factors behind land degradation, overfishing, sedimentation of coastal areas, and facilitation of invasions by alien species (Steinfeld et al., 2006).

What about the atmosphere and climate change? The livestock sector is responsible for 18% of global greenhouse-gas production. It has a larger impact on climate change than transportation, making eating less meat just as important, if not more so, than buying a hybrid vehicle, switching to fluorescent lights, or buying Energy Star appliances, etc. The livestock industry accounts for 9% of our CO2 emissions, 37% of methane, and 65% of nitrous oxide (all are greenhouse gases). The latter two are more important than many people realize. Methane has 23 times the global warming potential as CO2, molecule per molecule, while nitrous oxide has 296 times.

Livestock is also responsible for 64% of our ammonia production, which contributes significantly to acid rain and acidification of ecosystems (Steinfeld et al., 2006). The loss of trees due to acid rain reduces the earth's ability to absorb CO2 through photosynthesis, and impacts climate directly by altering weather patterns. A tropical forest cools the air around it while cropland heats it; forest loss affects climate around the world.

The livestock industry is also a major water polluter. Livestock produce 291 billion pounds of manure per year in the US – six times the amount of human sewage (1 steer produces 50-60 lbs of manure a day, one dairy cow 120 lbs (Robbins and Ornish, 2001)). None of this waste is sent to a treatment plant; instead it’s sprayed over cropland or housed in lagoons that leak. This waste matter ultimately works its way into our water supply. Nitrate concentrations under hog-waste lagoons have been measured at 10 times safe levels set by the EPA (Kneidel and Kneidel, 2005).

On a factory farm, hog waste pours from automated hog sheds into a "waste lagoon"

Our environment is also becoming polluted with antibiotics as a result of their use in the livestock industry. Every year, approximately 25 million pounds of antibiotics and related drugs are administered to animals in sub-therapeutic purposes, primarily for the purpose of boosting growth rates. This is more than eight times the amount used to treat disease in humans (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2003). Livestock typically shed in their feces up to 90% of the antibiotics fed to them, leading to antibiotic resistance in soil bacteria. Research has shown that using manure to fertilize soils also leads to the incorporation of unaltered antibiotics into plant matter, and therefore into our diet (Kumar et al., 2005).

Americans lead the way by far in per capita meat consumption. The average American eats 246 pounds of meat per year (74.4 billion pounds for 300 million people); other industrialized nations eat an average of 176 pounds per person per year; 66 pounds pp per year in developing nations (Nierenberg, 2005). Unfortunately the amount of meat being eaten across the globe is increasing. World meat consumption has more than doubled between 1950 and 2005. Consumption of milk and eggs has also risen. In every country where incomes have risen, meat consumption has too (Brown, 2008).

With our population projected to increase from 6.6 billion to 9.2 billion by 2050, it’s clear that we just can’t go on eating as much meat as we’re eating today. Change is easy. One day at a time. We can all start with one meatless day per week.

Photo courtesy of www.nytimes.com


Brown, L.R. Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Co, 2008.

Kneidel, S., and S.K. Kneidel. Veggie Revolution: Smart Choices for a Healthy Body and a Healthy Planet. Fulcrum Publishing, 2005. http://veggierevolution.blogspot.com

Kumar, K., S.C. Gupta, S.K. Baidoo, Y. Chander, and C.J. Rosen. 2005. “Antibiotic uptake by plants from soil fertilized with animal manure”. Journal of Environmental Quality, 2005, 34:2082-2085.

Nierenberg, D. “Worldwatch Paper #171: Happier Meals: Rethinking the Global Meat Industry.” Worldwatch Institute, 2005. http://www.wellfedworld.org/PDF/WorldWatch%20Happier%20Meals.pdf

Robbins, J., and D. Ornish. The Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life and the World. Berkeley, Calif.: Conari Press, 2001.

Steinfeld, H., P. Gerber, T. Wassenaar, V. Castel, M Rosales, and C. de Haan. “Livestock’s long shadow: environmental issues and options”. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006. http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.htm

Union of Concerned Scientists. “Food and Environment: Antibiotic Resistance”. October 2003.

Keywords:: campus meatless day environmental impact of meat

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

10 Hot Tips for an Green and Energy-efficient Holiday

1. Buy fewer presents!
You'll save the energy you would normally expend shopping and every item not purchased means less energy going into the production, packaging and shipping of that item.

2. Buy rechargeable batteries!
Over 40% of battery sales are made during the holidays according to the California Energy Commission. Using and reusing rechargeable batteries will reduce your trips to the store to buy batteries, and reduce the energy that goes into mining the metals, manufacturing the batteries, and shipping.

3. Buy local gifts!
Giving movie tickets, restaurant certificates, a babysitting promise, etc., uses fewer resources and less transportation. Other local items could include locally produced food, crafts, and jewelry.

4. Recycle that wrapping paper!
Buy recycled gift-wraps, which use 60% less energy to produce than virgin paper (and generate 95% less air pollution) according to Earth911.com. Or get creative and make your own gift wrap using comic pages, ribbons and other items that you have on hand. And after the holiday, reuse or recycle the paper, gift bags and ribbons on the gifts you receive.

5. Use LED holiday lights!
LED holiday lights are not widely available and reduce energy consumption by 80-90%. Turn your decorative lights off overnight. 6:00-10:00 PM are the prime visibility hours.

6. Eat fewer animal products for your holiday meal!
The meal doesn't have to be centered around turkey or ham. Make it a potluck, with a couple of people bringing veggie or bean casseroles. Or feature a pumpkin or broccoli sour as your entree. With a salad, savory bread, a scrumptious desert, who needs flesh? According to the United Nations document "Livestock's Long Shadow", livestock production generates more greenhouse gases than does transportation.

7. Keep the oven door shut!
Resist the temptation to open the oven door and check the casserole - even opening it once can reduce the temperature by 25 degrees. Consider baking several dishes at once, and use the right size for your stovetop burner, which can reduce energy waste by as much as 40%.

8. Turn the heat down when crowds are in the house!
With more warm bodies, you can set the thermostat lower and stay just as comfortable. The EPA recommends no higher than 68 degrees for the most economical and comfortable thermostat setting.

9. Stay home for the holidays!
A round trip flight from New York to Los Angeles produces 1, 436 lbs of CO2 according to Terra Pass. If you can stay home, you'll save energy. If not, buy carbon credits from Terra Pass or a similar company, to offset the greenhouse gases spewed out by your jet. Click here to read our review of the highest-rated companies that sell carbon offsets for plane travel.

10. Make your own holiday cards from recycled paper or send E-cards instead!

Source: The list above is adapted from a list by Gretchen, of Kilowatt Ours Community

For more cool ideas, see our 3 previous posts on green & socially-conscious gift-giving:
1) Six Great Tips for Earth-friendly No-shopping Gifts! Click here
2) Great Tips for Socially-conscious Gifts Like Fair-trade Chocolates! Click here
3) More Green Ideas forSustainable Holiday Gifts. Click here

Keywords:: tips for a green holiday tips for a green christmas energy efficient holiday energy efficient christmas earth-friendly gifts socially conscious gifts

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Did your shopping list kill a songbird?

Bobolink, courtesy of http://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov

The article below is by Bridget Stutchbury, Professor of Biology at York University in Toronto and author of "Silence of the Songbirds".

Though a consumer may not be able to tell the difference, a striking red and blue Thomas the Tank Engine made in Wisconsin is not the same as one manufactured in China — the paint on the Chinese twin may contain dangerous levels of lead. In the same way, a plump red tomato from Florida is often not the same as one grown in Mexico. The imported fruits and vegetables found in our shopping carts in winter and early spring are grown with types and amounts of pesticides that would often be illegal in the United States.

In this case, the victims are North American songbirds. Bobolinks, called skunk blackbirds in some places, were once a common sight in the Eastern United States. In mating season, the male in his handsome tuxedo-like suit sings deliriously as he whirrs madly over the hayfields. Bobolink numbers have plummeted almost 50 percent in the last four decades, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey.

The birds are being poisoned on their wintering grounds by highly toxic pesticides. Rosalind Renfrew, a biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, captured bobolinks feeding in rice fields in Bolivia and took samples of their blood to test for pesticide exposure. She found that about half of the birds had drastically reduced levels of cholinesterase, an enzyme that affects brain and nerve cells — a sign of exposure to toxic chemicals.

Since the 1980s, pesticide use has increased fivefold in Latin America as countries have expanded their production of nontraditional crops to fuel the demand for fresh produce during winter in North America and Europe. Rice farmers in the region use monocrotophos, methamidophos and carbofuran, all agricultural chemicals that are rated Class I toxins by the World Health Organization, are highly toxic to birds, and are either restricted or banned in the United States. In countries like Guatemala, Honduras and Ecuador, researchers have found that farmers spray their crops heavily and repeatedly with a chemical cocktail of dangerous pesticides.

In the mid-1990s, American biologists used satellite tracking to follow Swainson’s hawks to their wintering grounds in Argentina, where thousands of them were found dead from monocrotophos poisoning. Migratory songbirds like bobolinks, barn swallows and Eastern kingbirds are suffering mysterious population declines, and pesticides may well be to blame. A single application of a highly toxic pesticide to a field can kill seven to 25 songbirds per acre. About half the birds that researchers capture after such spraying are found to suffer from severely depressed neurological function.

Migratory birds, modern-day canaries in the coal mine, reveal an environmental problem hidden to consumers. Testing by the United States Food and Drug Administration shows that fruits and vegetables imported from Latin America are three times as likely to violate Environmental Protection Agency standards for pesticide residues as the same foods grown in the United States. Some but not all pesticide residues can be removed by washing or peeling produce, but tests by the Centers for Disease Control show that most Americans carry traces of pesticides in their blood. American consumers can discourage this poisoning by avoiding foods that are bad for the environment, bad for farmers in Latin America and, in the worst cases, bad for their own families.

What should you put on your bird-friendly grocery list? Organic coffee, for one thing. Most mass-produced coffee is grown in open fields heavily treated with fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and insecticides. In contrast, traditional small coffee farmers grow their beans under a canopy of tropical trees, which provide shade and essential nitrogen, and fertilize their soil naturally with leaf litter. Their organic, fair-trade coffee is now available in many coffee shops and supermarkets, and it is recommended by the Audubon Society, the American Bird Conservancy and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.

Organic bananas should also be on your list. Bananas are typically grown with one of the highest pesticide loads of any tropical crop. Although bananas present little risk of pesticide ingestion to the consumer, the environment where they are grown is heavily contaminated.

When it comes to nontraditional Latin American crops like melons, green beans, tomatoes, bell peppers and strawberries, it can be difficult to find any that are organically grown. We should buy these foods only if they are not imported from Latin America.

Now that spring is here, we take it for granted that the birds’ cheerful songs will fill the air when our apple trees blossom. But each year, as we continue to demand out-of-season fruits and vegetables, we ensure that fewer and fewer songbirds will return.


Bridget Stutchbury. "Did your shopping list kill a songbird?" New York Times, March 30, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/30/opinion/30stutchbury.html

Keywords:: birds organic bananas organic coffee pesticides

Monday, December 01, 2008

Devon discovers illegal scam, rushes to protect forest

Devon Graham of Project Amazonas

My family met Devon Graham in June of 2008 - he's a tropical biologist and president of Project Amazonas, a conservation nonprofit in the Peruvian Amazon. See our previous post about our visit to Iquitos and to two Project Amazonas biological stations on tributaries of the Amazon River. We loved Iquitos - part of its charm is being the biggest city in the world inaccessible by road. But Devon told me recently that this distinction is changing - a new road is underway that will link Iquitos with the Napo River port of Mazan. A road through rainforest brings bad news for rainforest wildlife. The road provides, for commercial interests, access to areas that were previously too remote to be profitable. Loggers, slash-and-burn ranchers, and illegal wildlife traders move in. A new road unleashes an avalanche of forest exploitation and development.

Devon points out that the Amazon is in many ways a frontier. The area lacks adequate law enforcement, so illegal exploitation is commonplace. See our post on the market in Iquitos, where threatened wildlife species are sold for the same price as a couple of mangos. The following is a story of Devon's discovery of attempted theft of rainforest trees along the new road-under-construction. It's a systematic exploitation by logging companies that works because local communities lack the infrastructure to stop it. But this time, maybe it won't work, if Devon has his way.

Here is the story, in Devon's words:

"I’m really starting to regret having decided to check out the new road. What was going to be a quick jaunt has turned into aching thighs, sunburned face, tense arms, hand spasms from gripping too tightly, and a lot of déjà vu of the time I put 10,000 km on a 75 HP Suzuki motorcycle in 5 months – most of it off-road.

The drivers in this story, Ricardo and Luis

But that was in the Peace Corps 20+ years ago, and my body isn’t as tolerant of such punishment any more. The new road between Iquitos and Mazan in the Peruvian Amazon might be new, but it is far from finished.

The new road from Iquitos, under construction

Some sections are 50 feet wide and relatively smooth (apart from grader-tracks), but other, longer sections are definitely of “off-road” quality: deeply rutted, muddy, dusty, blocked by heavy machinery, covered with grasses and brush, composed of curving 20-percent grades, and crossed by drainage channels – sometimes seemingly all at once. At one point the road crosses directly across a soccer field in front of a school, and we zoom though the goal posts. “!Gol!” exclaims Luis, my driver; “doble-gol” I respond, and he chuckles as we bounce along. I wonder what happens when a game is actually in progress. Later on we lose Fernando Rios, the in-country Project Amazonas manager, and his driver Ricardo for a while. When they catch up they explain that they were held up by an ornery cow.
“¿La vacita negra?” (“The little black cow?”) Luis asks. They nod. We’d both noticed it staring madly at us as we went past where the road crossed a pasture. I guess a suffering gringo on the back of a roaring motorcycle pushed its bovine brain over the edge. It couldn’t take any more, and I’m getting to the same point. The pasture-lands and farms grade into tall forest on both sides as the ribbon of dirt and mud slides by beneath the wheels, and fourteen kilometers down the road I spot a sign on the side of the road – the first sign we’ve seen on this newest of roads. I breathe a sigh of relief, tell Luis to stop, and stiffly and ungracefully get off the back of the motorcycle. We have arrived.

The sign at the eastern extension of Project Amazonas new land purchase

Fernando and I are on a mission to check out the road access to the newest of the Project Amazonas field sites and forest reserves in Peru. This site is different from the other three that Project Amazonas already operates. It has no river access, but instead is located on a new road between the Peruvian Amazon’s largest city (Iquitos), and the Napo River port city of Mazan. Once that new road is a little less new, and presumably in better condition, there is little doubt that the tall primary forest that covers the hilly upland terrain will soon disappear. In January 2008, we purchased the first two lots of land with funding from Margarita Tours. In February and March, two additional purchases and some creative land-swapping enabled us to double the size of the acquired lands to 84 hectares (208 acres). In the subsequent months, all the survey work and title-work for the 4 parcels we’ve acquired of lands was completed though the Ministry of Agriculture which handles such matters. In July, however, an adjacent land-owner offered to sell his parcel of 24 ha to us as well – acquiring this parcel would put us just two narrow parcels away from the Santa Cruz community’s forest reserve lot of 300 hectares – and so I say yes, we’ll buy it, I’ll get the money one way or another! If we can border the community’s forest reserve, it will create a block of protected forest area of over 600 acres, and open up many possibilities for developing collaborative management of the lands for education, conservation, research, and ecotourism purposes. So we’re there to check out the new parcel, as well as to determine where we’d like to put a caretaker’s house and, in the near future, an educational center. To seal the deal with the landowner, Fernando has given him a used motorcycle and a cash sum from his salary. Tomorrow I’ll pay the landowner the remaining amount and we’ll sign the paperwork for the bill of sale. Both Fernando and I will be reimbursed our personal funds out of a conservation donation from the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey which was made for the express purpose of acquiring the new parcel of land. Perhaps we could have waited until those funds arrived in a week or so, but things can change fast when a new road opens in the Amazon, and we aren’t taking any chances.

Fernando Rios in forest interior at the Santa Cruz site

The sign we’ve reached was installed by Fernando in July at the eastward extension of our new lands. He has another sign ready to install at the western extension border with the road once the pending land sale is completed. I’m so glad to be off the motorcycle that we walk the entire 2 km extension of road frontage of the property. Approximately mid-way along, there is a bend of the road with a nice flat area lacking large trees. Centrally, it drops off gently to the valley bottom, and more steeply on either side to a pair of small creeks. Fernando and I agree that it would be an ideal location for a caretaker’s house and educational center. Patrolling the road frontage would be easy from such a centrally located site (we’re envisioning a regular dirt-bike for the caretaker to use), and a trail network could be started from the same location without having to navigate any immediate steep slopes. As we walk along the road, we notice numerous shungos, (below) the hard, rot-resistant heartwood of long-dead trees of various species bulldozed to the side.

A "shungo" or long-dead tree good for construction instead of living trees

These will serve as excellent material both for fencing the road frontage, as well as for construction. There won’t be any need to cut large living trees for those purposes. Fernando is enthused by the number of large tornillo trees (right and next page) – these are highly valued for boat building purposes and for certain types of construction that require a very dense wood that can resist the rot that results from frequent wetting and drying. I’m more enthused by the number of birds that I can hear in the forest or that are flying across the road. Unfortunately my binoculars are waiting for me at the Madre Selva Biological Station – several hours downriver from Iquitos by boat, and where I’ll be headed in two days.

Before long we reach the border of the lands that Project Amazonas has title to. A narrow cleared line in the understory marks where one parcel of land begins and the other ends. These border lines are the standard means of marking property boundaries in the Amazon. Curiously, however, this border line appears to be freshly cleared, and at the road edge is a wooden post sporting a trio of blue plastic “A’s”.

The mysterious blue "A's"

We puzzle over why the land owner would bother to put in a post and clear the border right before a sale is finalized. Walking down the road to the other edge of the to-be-acquired-parcel, we spot another wooden post with the enigmatic blue “A’s”. Fernando tries to call the land-owner, but cell-phone reception is spotty in this hilly area, and so we continue to wonder. We decide to take the motorcycles a bit further onward to where the Santa Cruz forest reserve lands end and another community’s lands begin. The delineation couldn’t be much more obvious. On one side of the cleared border strip is tall forest, the other side is covered by bananas and plantains, with the odd remnant tree sticking up as if to emphasize the lack of forest cover. The air itself feels hotter. We hop back on the motorcycles and head back toward Mazan – we could have continued on to Iquitos, but that would mean sitting on the back of the motorcycle for twice the distance that we’ve already come. I’m not ready for that – maybe when the road is in better shape, but not today. The trip back doesn’t seem so long – we stop once to watch a troupe of marmosets cross the road, and again to visit a local farm. Then my driver hits a slick spot and we start to fishtail. The fishtail turns into a wipe-out and there is the sound of breaking plastic. We both hop off, unhurt, and upright the motorcycle. Fortunately damage is minimal – just some plastic housing broken, nothing essential. We head on to Mazan again.

A mature rain forest tree, a prime target for illegal loggers, in the Santa Cruz forestry reserve

Once in Mazan, there is good cell coverage again. Fernando makes a series of calls, and eventually we’re in touch with the landowner. The mystery of the triple blue “A’s” begins to unfold. The landowner is surprised, and is not responsible for them. The community of Santa Cruz isn’t responsible either, but they do have more information. The posts were installed two days previously by unknown persons who were marking a “bosque local” (a local forest slated for logging) belonging to the community of Paraiso (Paradise), some 20 km distant on the Napo River. How one community can designate logging lands inside of the titled lands of another community is a mystery to me, but Paradise has designated about 1000 hectares (nearly 2,500 acres) of Santa Cruz land as having timber belonging to Paradise. Community leaders and land-owners in Santa Cruz are upset, and rightfully so, and on Tuesday (5 August) are presenting a formal denunciation in Iquitos at INRENA (the government agency in charge of forestry and natural resources use). Fernando patiently unravels my confusion. He explains that crooked forestry engineers take money from equally crooked logging barons to fabricate official looking studies and documentation giving the loggers the authority to log on lands that don’t lie within any logging concessions, and which may or may not cross into private lands that are somewhat remote from community centers where everyone would know if something was going on. Inspection and enforcement is expensive and sparse, and loggers may move fast, counting on official inertia to allow them to take out high value lumber from an area and be gone before anything can be done. Some landlords don’t actually live on their plots of titled lands, others may agree to accept a small sum of money from the loggers in exchange for not raising a fuss – while such sums may seem like a fair bit of money to a poor landowner in need of ready cash, these payments are a mere fraction of what the timber on the land is actually worth. Bribing of key community officials sometimes helps as well. It really is still a frontier area. Ironically, community leaders in Paradise may not even be aware of their “claim” to the timber of Santa Cruz. Instead they are probably being set up to take the blame and to shield the identity of the true parties responsible. Fernando refers to such fabricated land claims as “títulos fantásmicos” (phantom land titles) that have no legal basis to them, and which count on local people not having the economic resources to fight a well-financed logging scam. It costs money to send a delegation to Iquitos, and many communities simply don’t have the resources. Besides, everyone “knows” that you can’t fight the government, so when loggers show up waving official-looking papers with all the stamps and signatures and backed with plenty of muscle-power, what is a simple land-owner without connections in high places supposed to do? Most just try to make the best of an unjust situation.

Forest creek at the Santa Cruz site – although there was only a couple of inches of water with intermittent deeper pools, at least a half-dozen fish species were present

This time, however, the plot has been caught early before any damage has been done. I instruct Fernando to let the Santa Cruz community leaders know that we’ll help out with transportation expenses for their delegation if needed. The incident also drives home the need to quickly fence the lands that we’ve acquired and to build a caretakers house* so that there is someone on site to keep track of things on a daily basis, and, more importantly, so that everyone else knows that the land is valued, cared for, and not to be messed with! As they say, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. Fortunately, I already have a financial commitment from Nature’s Images, Inc., natural history writing and photo company in Texas to fund the fencing of the property, Building a sturdy caretakers house with associated kitchen and bathroom and a water collection system will be around $1,800; monthly salary and benefits for a rotating caretakership (where all community members who wish to participate can do so for three months at a stretch) will be about $175 monthly. This is the fourth time that Project Amazonas has had to face the threat of illegal logging, and so far we’ve “won” three times, thanks to the intervention of local communities and the fast action of our on-the-ground people in Peru. We won’t loose the fourth time, either, and with strong local community support as well as international assistance, we’ll be going 'four for four'.

My butt may be sore, my arms and face burned, but I’m burning hottest inside! There’s forest to be saved and work to do."

Photos and text by Devon Graham, PhD

*If you would like to help protect the new Santa Cruz forest reserve from illegal logging and poaching, here's how:
Project Amazonas needs to raise $175/month to fund a caretaker position at the new forest reserve. The caretaker will assist students and researchers, maintain trails and buildings, and prevent logging and other activities that might damage the mature rainforest at this site. To make a tax-deductible donation (in the USA), please contact Project Amazonas president Devon Graham (
mionectes@aol.com) or mail a check to:

Treasurer, Project Amazonas, Inc.
701 E. Commercial Blvd, #200
Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33334, USA

Postscripts by Devon:

On 6 August 2008, thanks to a lot of footwork by Fernando Rios, we finalized the purchase of the adjacent 24 ha (60 acres) from the adjacent landowner, and now have the official title to Lot 77, along with the transfer of title and all other legal papers. We need about $750 to finalize the transfer of title, official survey papers, and notarization fees for Lots 73, 74, 75 and 76 which, when done will give us the single contiguous block of land of 104 ha (260 acres).

5 August 2008: The authorities of Santa Cruz presented the formal denunciation of the logging claim within their community. Project Amazonas helped to cover their transportation costs, and we have a copy of the denunciation. This will now be worked through in the courts, and the forestry engineer and/or logging company responsible will be sanctioned accordingly. There is virtually no chance that the community will lose its case.

1 September 2008: An additional plot of land has become available which would connect our existing 260 acres directly with the Mazan River, giving us a long corridor of protected lands. The asking price is s/10,000 (about US $4,000 including administrative and titling fees). If you would like to fully fund the acquisition of this parcel of land, we would be willing to name the annex as you wished (assuming of course, that you wouldn’t choose an offensive or derogatory name for it!).

At the same time, the Iquitos-Mazan road has undergone further improvements, and is now accessible to 4-wheeled vehicles. At the Iquitos end of the road, extensive land-clearing activity is already underway. This activity will march steadily toward Mazan, so the window of opportunity for acquiring additional tall forest is very limited.

22 September 2008: In October, Peruvian herpetology student Jhon Jairo Lopez began the very first scientific work at the Santa Cruz property - herpetological survey of the area. In December, ornithological, fish and botanical surveys will also begin with the work of Dr. Haven Wiley (UNC) and myself (FIU). Volunteer Nicholas Arms will be assisting with the herpetological work as well. We will be spending the Christmas holidays at the site starting around the 15th of December. If you would like to participate in survey and other work at the new field site, please contact us as soon as possible.

Project Amazonas, Inc., is a USA-Peruvian non-profit organization which maintains and operates four biological reserves in the Peruvian Amazon. These are open for use by students, researchers, courses and ecotourists. Project Amazonas manages the sites in collaboration with local communities, and also engages in medical, education, and community development activities with isolated communities in the north-eastern Peruvian Amazon. Project Amazonas is registered as a 501(c)3 organization in the state of Florida, and as the Asociación Civil Proyecto Amazonas (as it is formally called) is registered at the national level in the Republic of Peru. For more information, visit www.projectamazonas.com.

Dr. Devon Graham is a tropical biologist who has been involved with Project Amazonas since the fall of 1994, and who became president of the organization in 2000. When not working in the Peruvian Amazon with Project Amazonas, Dr. Graham hosts a variety of ecotours in the Amazon and elsewhere with Margarita Tours, Inc., and also teaches in The Honors College at Florida International University in Miami, Florida. He can be contacted at mionectes@aol.com.

If you’d like to have Devon's previous article "Ancient trees look for love in the Amazon" (Aug 08), contact him at mionectes@aol.com and he will be happy to send it to you.

Devon with a Smoky Jungle Frog

Keywords:: birding Peru Amazon Devon Graham Project Amazonas deforestation logging Iquitos road ecotourism biodiversity